Vietnamese artist backtracks and admits to using foreigners' work for social media project

By Vi Vu   August 28, 2017 | 01:14 am PT
Vietnamese artist backtracks and admits to using foreigners' work for social media project
A design by Maxk Nguyen (R) and of Francesco Vullo on Instagram. Nguyen said he is asking Vullo for permission to use the idea.
Just a few days ago, Maxk Nguyen claimed he 'never copies' other artists.

Months after he took social media by storm with designs and photos that feature life in Saigon that young people can relate to, a local artist has admitted that he does not deserve all the credit.

Nguyen Manh Khoi, who goes by the nickname Maxk Nguyen, is the founder of Saigon Emoji which has won thousands of fans since it went online early this year.

People have fallen in love with the way he narrates city life in a social media context by putting conservation emojis on plastic stools or Facebook likes and hearts on a street vendor’s baskets. They laugh at the (dark) humor of his blending things together such as a salt box labeled drama to add to a realty show, or a blood transfusion bag labeled with a milk tea brand.

The work has been featured on various media outlets in Vietnam, a country where around half of the population has social media accounts.

But questions followed the new-found attention. Several local artists were not convinced, and decided to dig deeper. Their hunch proved correct when they found that some of his works are exactly the same or similar to those created by foreign artists.

While some foreign artists have laughed off the resemblance as a coincidence, at least one named Francesco Vullo wanted to report him for plagiarism.

The tension drove Nguyen to publish an apology on Facebook on Saturday night for causing “a misunderstanding”.

“I want to send an apology to the artists and photographers who own the artworks that I have used and edited to post on Saigon Emoji, causing a misunderstanding that the works belong to Saigon Emoji,” he wrote in Vietnamese.

He named six foreign artists and their links, including Vullo, saying he has now contacted these artists to ask for permission to use their works.

If they say no, he said, the pieces will be removed from his pages.

He also said that Saigon Emoji is a personal project for sharing experiences, and has no commercial purpose.

“This is a big lesson for me,” said the 26-year-old.


Maxk Nguyen's collection reuses a pull cart design by Francis Curran, who is among the artists he said he has contacted to ask for permission to use their work.

Nguyen's status has created a long and noisy thread. While many supporters have stood by him, others said the apology is too late, especially after Nguyen had strongly dismissed allegations several days earlier, saying that his project “never copies” others’ works.

Some said the list of artists is not full yet.

Nguyen is also the man behind the famous Saigon in Three Square Meters project, which illustrates a pocket-size version of Saigon in the 1990s and features distinctive parts of life such as a street food stand, a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, a news stand and and a barber shop all packed into a corner measuring three square meters.

The two-month project by him and seven other artists was exhibited in July.

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